Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.
–Thich Nhat Hanh
I’ve been reciting this mantra in my head a lot this week on my morning walks. About a month ago I decided to offset the sedentary tendencies of my online teaching job with a daily constitutional. We live in the driftless area of Wisconsin, a place known for its rolling green hills and unique geological history. Thousands of years ago, a glacier receded across the Midwest, conveniently skipping this little pocket of wilderness, and the land here feels old, a little magical maybe. Since the moment I laid eyes on these hills, I’ve felt like they’ve been waiting for me. “You can see us. And we see you, too,” they seem to say. They welcome me with each step. Every morning is a symphony of bird songs, rustling leaves, and lowing livestock. Big puffy clouds duck under giant oak trees, hickory, maple, and a family of horses bow to the valley floor, their muscles rippling, glistening in the morning sun, their tails swishing back and forth. A foal brushes her head against her mother’s haunches as she peers shyly at me. She’s new, and when I take them along, Skye and Colin giggle when they her, their eyes shining as they hold out blades of grass to feed her.
I’ve only just restarted my walks again after the horrible events of this past week. About two weeks ago, my husband found a tiny deer tick on my daughter Skye, barely the size of a pencil dot. Ticks are a fact of life here, and we’ve remained diligent parents, instituting nightly tick checks. We didn’t think much of it, honestly. We did what google said to do: wait, look for a bullseye rash and keep an eye out for flu symptoms. Days went by, weeks. Nothing. Then, on a stop to Culver’s, I noticed a bizarre rash on her legs as she jumped out of the car. I had never seen anything like it. It looked like a bunch of small, fist-sized rings on her shins. Skye has a history of eczema and odd allergic reactions, so while I was curious, I wasn’t alarmed. I called my doctor to see if I could come in, but he was gone for the day. I figured I could go to urgent care the next day if the rash remained.
That night, I went to take off her pajamas and saw that the rash had spread all over body. She was also running a fever. I put her to bed with some children’s tylenol, but I felt deep in my gut something was wrong. I googled all variation of “ring” and “rash,” but only the usual suspects came up: ringworm (naturally) and the bulls eye rash for lyme disease. Remembering the tick we found, I added lyme disease to my search, and the exact rash Skye had came up. A cold chill washed over me, and I darted up the stairs and shook her awake. We were going to the ER.
And I’m glad we did go. To make a long story a little shorter, Skye definitely had Lyme disease, but the infection had spread to her blood and was starting to affect her heart. She had what is called a “1st degree Ab block,” or to put it another way, the little blip on her EKG was taking too long to blip. Our ER doctor, Dr. Kahn (for whom I will be eternally grateful, like seriously, I owe this man a life debt) sent us to UW Children’s Hospital for treatment. The whole time I had to literally bite my hand to keep myself from crying or screaming hysterically, but my five year old daughter was having the time of her life. When the brawny EMT guys barged in and started strapping her down, preparing her for a transfer, I thought, “This is it. This is where she loses her shit.” But the whole time she was smiling, asking questions, and talking about her last visit to Madison and the Children’s Museum.
When they give you your baby at the hospital, they hand you some pamphlets about car seats and SIDS, but there’s nothing about how to raise a decent human being. I went on blogs and discussion forums, I read books, I asked my parents and friends, but in the end, all I could do was trust my instincts and pray that all the Curious George she watched while I was finishing my dissertation didn’t somehow rot her brain (it didn’t). Watching her that night, a spaghetti mess of wires emanating from her tiny body, I saw this brave little person who believed she was on a perfectly exciting adventure. And I thought, for just a moment, that maybe, just maybe, we did a good job with this peanut, and that if she lives through this, she’s going to grow up to be amazing.
Live through this she did, of course, and I’m so happy to say that the antibiotics are doing their job. Her arrhythmia is gone, and we’re slowly returning back to normal at the Halverson household. For me, though, I still feel myself reeling from the experience: the terrifying ambulance ride, the sound of her heart monitor setting off alarms in the night, the ghostly figures of sick children, so much sicker than my own child, grasping onto their IVs as they wander down the hall. Most of the time, I can deal with stress by throwing myself into work, but this time feels different.
Writing has felt like a chore the past few days, my mind wandering back to that night: the fear that gripped my chest, the churning in my stomach, the desperate, trembling need to touch my daughter, always touching her, in case she somehow slipped away from me. My brother, an Iraq War veteran, explained PTSD to me as the body not being able to respond to stress at a level “5” or so. After a traumatic experience, any stress sends you directly to 10. I’m not comparing my experience with war, and I’m certainly not equating what I’m feeling to PTSD. But in the past few days, it’s been hard not to go to 10 every time Skye runs a fever or complains about a headache. Even though everything is great now, her arrhythmia is gone and I have to yell at her a thousand times a day to STOP RUNNING, I can’t shake this feeling of anxiety.
So I’ve returned to my Mindfulness Meditation roots to help me. It’s been a while. I used to run a meditation session locally here, but after giving birth to two children, I couldn’t expend the time or energy for it. As my Buddhist monk friend says, “Your children are now your practice.” Hehe. Indeed. But at the Milwaukee Mindfulness Center, I learned how to practice walking meditation. I feel like this has been the one thing returning me back to “normal,” and any time my mind wanders during my daily walk, I return to the simple poem by Thich Nhat Hanh, “Present moment, perfect moment.” I breathe in, “present moment,” and breathe out, “perfect moment.” This is keeping me from the endless stream of “what ifs”: What if I hadn’t gone to the ER that night? What if Dr. Kahn hadn’t been there? What if she had gone into cardiac arrest? What if, what if, what if…
Have you gone through a traumatic life experience? How did you find your way back to writing? Please share with me…